Just a half hour drive east of Madrid is the municipality of Alcalá de Henares. The city boasts a number of historic titles including being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to the first university of Spain, and the birthplace of Spanish poet, playwright, and novelist Miguel de Cervantes.
The historical importance of Alcalá de Henares is strongly based in its prestigious position within the Golden Age of Spain as a hub for intellectuals after the creation of Spain’s first university, Universitas Complutensis, in the 15th century. Although the university has since moved to Madrid, the original university center structure known as the Colegio Mayor de San Ildefonso is still used in accordance with the city’s strong scholarly tradition, including for the honorable presentation of the Cervantes Prize for Literature. The complex still boasts classrooms from the original structure as well as Renaissance and Baroque courtyards and cloisters. The 16th century Plateresque façade of the building was designed and built by some of the most skilled carvers of the time. Within proximity to the university is the site of the Colegio del Rey, now the Cervantes Institute responsible for the development and dissemination of the Castilian language, but was once the building to which the family’s of the king’s attendants would send their children to study. The preserved historic city center displays the grandeur of life during the Golden Age as the streets of the old quarter are lined with Colegios Mayores, student residence halls from the 16th and 17th centuries that have been transformed into restaurants and hotels. One of particular note is the Colegio Menor de San Jerónimo, now part of the Parador hotel network, with its Trilingual Courtyard, so named after the study of languages that takes place there, that was built in the 16th century according to the Renaissance and Mudéjar styles. The establishment’s restaurant is a great location to try the local Castilian cuisine amongst the facilities colonnades and garden.
No visit would be complete without sitting for a moment within the Plaza de Cervantes, named after the famed author of Don Quixote. Within the plaza one can sit back and enjoy the city’s architectural heritage, with many of the surrounding buildings constructed to the guidelines of the romantic style.
If becoming better acquainted with the Miguel de Cervantes is your desired agenda the Casa de Cervantes provides free entry to anyone desiring to tour the literary master’s birthplace and residence.
Although the city has a distinctly unique past linking it to the scholarly Golden Age of the Spanish Empire, the land on which Alcalá de Henares has been erected on has ties back to the Roman Empire. Roman ruins of the original city called Complutum have been excavated and are available for viewing, in particular at the House of Hippolytus, with preserved mosaics from an old estate, and the Monumental Complex Forum, where you can tour the ancient forum of the city.
Alcalá de Henares can be reached by bus, train or car. Both the C-2 and C-7 from Atocha Renfe or Estación de Chamartín will deliver travelers to this destination. Buses can be caught at the Avenida de América. However, a much more entertaining and educational way of reaching and touring the city is on the Tren de Cervantes (available only on weekends during the spring and autumn) on which guides donning attire from the Golden Age accompany passengers.